Afghan delegation heads to Guantanamo Bay

A delegation from Afghanistan's peace council will visit the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay as early as next month to seek the release of Afghan detainees as a goodwill gesture to boost reconciliation talks with the Taliban.

Arsala Rahmani, chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council's committee on prisoners, said Tuesday that President Hamid Karzai backed the council's decision to travel to Cuba as part of its effort to find a political endgame to the 9-year-old war.

It is unclear whether the delegation has U.S. permission to visit the prison, but in a speech last week in New York, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States would step up efforts to build international support for Afghan reconciliation.

"I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful — even unimaginable," she said. "And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace."

The Afghan government and members of the international community have had informal contacts with insurgents but no formal peace talks are under way. Publicly, the Taliban say there will be no negotiations until foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

"There is no trust on either side," Rahmani said. "The release of these prisoners will help the peace process move forward because these are big Taliban figures."

The peace council wants the United States to release Afghan detainees alleged to have been wrongly detained and other prisoners who might be able to facilitate peace negotiations with top Taliban leaders.

Rahmani named about a half-dozen detainees the peace council especially wants to see freed. The list includes Noorullah Noori, the governor of Balkh province during the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001; Fazel Akhund, army chief of staff during the Taliban regime; Mohammad Nabi, an alleged Taliban commander; Abdul Haq Wasiq, deputy intelligence service director during the Taliban rule; and Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former governor and minister in the Taliban regime who has been held at Guantanamo for more than eight years.

Khairkhwa's attorney, Frank Goldsmith, has said he received an e-mail in January from a legal adviser to the peace council, saying the council wanted the detainee released and repatriated to Afghanistan to help with the peace process. The e-mail said Khairkhwa could be repatriated under certain conditions, including that he stay in Kabul, though he wouldn't be in confinement.

Abdul Wahid Baghrani, another member of the peace council, said the group also was working to identify a "safe place" to conduct possible negotiations with the Taliban. He said he personally wants any talks held in Afghanistan, but that the peace council was exploring other venues, including Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

Ten members of the peace council, including its chairman, left Tuesday for Turkey to meet with the nation's president and other top officials. The peace council did not disclose what the delegation would discuss during its four-day stay. Peace council members earlier visited Pakistan.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher said the United States supports the work of the peace council. She said it is working with Afghan-led reconciliation efforts to reach out to Afghans who are willing to renounce violence, break with the al-Qaida terrorist network and abide by Afghanistan's constitution.

Decisions on Guantanamo detainees are based on the results of a U.S. government interagency review of their status and the requirements of congressional legislation, she said.

"We do not comment on the status of the cases of individual detainees or of any bilateral discussions with foreign governments regarding detainees," she said.

In her speech, Clinton linked reconciliation to Karzai's goal for Afghan security forces to have the lead in securing their homeland by 2014.

At a meeting Tuesday in Kabul, Afghan, NATO and international officials endorsed recommendations for where transition to Afghan security forces will begin in the first half of this year. Karzai is to formally announce which areas of the country will be the first to transition in a speech next month.

"As transition proceeds and Afghan leadership strengthens across the country, a process of political reconciliation will become increasingly viable," she said. "In turn, successful reconciliation will reduce the threat to the Afghan government, making transition more sustainable."

Clinton also said members of the peace council would attend and review reconciliation efforts at an international meeting next month in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The meeting, hosted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, will bring together more than 40 countries and international organizations, including a growing number of Muslim nations.